Travelling between the UK and France during COVID-19 has never been easy, but it has certainly never felt as odd as this last month, with capriciously added quarantine restrictions on the UK side because of a beta variant outbreak on the territory of La Réunion, some 6000 miles away off Madagascar, combined with France removing any testing and quarantine at all for the fully vaccinated.
It was therefore with some gratitude to the travel gods that my double-vaccinated partner and I arrived at the UK side of the Eurotunnel auto-train heading to France.
On the date of travel Eurotunnel was running two passenger vehicle trains an hour. Arriving more than an hour before the official checkin time, your author might previously have expected to be waved onto an earlier train after about five minutes of processing — as happened last November.
In reality, though, the amount of delays and queueing meant that, despite the early arrival, we parked up in the post-processing departure lane with only just enough time to pop to the lavatory block before boarding was called.
Eurotunnel operates the kind of reciprocal pre-departure border checks that airline travellers may recognise from, say, Dublin heading to the US, where French arrival checks are carried out on the British side of the Channel and vice versa. Having these checks carried out before departure rather than on arrival uses what might otherwise be wasted time, and means that you can drive straight off the train in your destination country.
On this trip, there were 20-30-minute holdups at two points: checkin and at the French side of the border controls.
Eurotunnel’s checkin delays were inexplicable
It’s unclear why there was any holdup at checkin, which essentially consisted of giving the name on the booking to the agent staffing the kiosk and being handed the mirror-hanger tag allocating you to a train and car.
Previously, even during the pandemic, this was done automatically, with number-plate recognition cameras on a touchscreen, entirely contactless.
It’s unclear why this would need to be moved to processing by staff — at no point was our proof of vaccination status or ID requested by them — since both the number-plate of the car and passport details were already in the booking. It’s possible (though unlikely) that unvaccinated travellers had to show further documentation, although this was required to be uploaded prior to travel, and could easily have been moved into a special lane or processing area after checkin.
And even if staff handling is required, it was frustrating to see a sea of the red X markers glowing that meant “closed lane”, with only a few kiosks open. I do have sympathy for any service provider in the UK, where the decision to remove all COVID safeguards has led to a case explosion — and staff having to isolate either because they have caught COVID or been directed to isolate after being in touch with a positive case.
But, if this is the case, then Eurotunnel needs to be up front about that with travellers, perhaps in an email or text message: “today N of our staff are isolating, which means our checkins are staffed at NN% capacity, so please arrive in plenty of time, be patient, and have XYZ documents ready”.
Border controls seemed to be unfiltered
The second holdup was at the French side of the border control area, which had backed up across the gap between the French and UK sides of this zone.
The UK side consisted of a staffer in a kiosk checking passports against car occupants, given that passengers could have been moving around between vehicles in the pre-departure duty free terminal area, and a masked Border Force agent standing after the kiosk seemingly bored and filling their time asking questions about the purpose of people’s trips.
The UK side was then filtering all traffic from our lane, closest to the “random” extra security check zone, to be “randomly” checked with swabs of steering wheel and door handles for contraband (one assumes explosives, drugs, and so on).
(For this aviation journalist, it was somewhat nostalgically reminiscent of the “random” post-X-ray security checks at certain airports that pull over only passengers from the processing line closest to them.)
On the French side, processing seemed to be taking a long time for some travellers but very little for others.
We — two fully vaccinated travellers with printed out vaccination certification — needed only to hand over passports and printouts for a quick moment before being waved straight through, since there are no restrictions on entering France for passengers who count as fully vaccinated.
Non-vaccinated travellers, however, require sub-24h tests and a motif impériaux (essential/compelling reason) to travel, and it was perhaps this that was causing issues as unvaccinated people clogged up the queues.
It was nonetheless a long and frustrating experience, and made this author wonder: should Eurotunnel work with the authorities to separate vaccinated travellers, who can be swiftly processed, from non-vaccinated travellers, who require additional documentation verification?
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- Prepare for forms and more forms when flying Europe-US
- Flying US-Europe proves less rigid than expected, but be prepared
- Op-Ed: Low-cost ferry surprises with pro-PaxEx alternative to flights
All images credited to the author, John Walton